At this time of year, the sight and scent of beautiful flowers fills me with sadness and serves as a chilling reminder that the vases of my youth remain hauntingly empty. I recall with tears the memory of my dear parents who both died in the prime of their life. The realization that they never had the opportunity to embrace their 36 grandchildren and over 100 great grandchildren gnaws at my soul. Conversely, their descendants never had the pleasure or benefit of a relationship with their grandparents.
In addition to the emotions that often wreak havoc on my thoughts, I ponder the biblical requirement I am expected to perform – the commandment to honor my parents. In my obligation to posthumously honor them, is it mandatory to embellish the truth and elevate them to angelic status? Should I share a one dimensional depiction of my parents with my children to ensure they will be held in high esteem? My mother was a very kind and compassionate woman who lived a truly humble and pious life, but would I have the audacity to portray her as flawless? If I place her on a pedestal, could it actually serve to denigrate her and make it more difficult for her grand- and great-grandchildren to connect with her and her story?
Respect doesn’t require us to create a tale of fiction. It requires only genuine love, admiration, and an understanding of all they have given to you. As we prepare for the day in which we pay tribute and homage to our mothers, it is important to acknowledge that we love, honor, and respect them in all their complexity. It may be worthwhile to realize that their love was rarely predicated on what they wanted their children to be, but rather their love preceded and often created a vision and expectations of their children.
An interesting verse from this week’s Torah portion states: These are the festivals of God which they called holy. Our sages deduce from the wording that even if the Sanhedrin – the judicial high court – were incorrect in their assessment, the ruling must be enforced. The ruling stands even if the judges made an error that was premeditated and deliberate. While it may be difficult to fathom why people of stature would maliciously render a false judgment, the fact remains that the possibility exists. While those who believe in the infallibility of rabbis may find this verse extremely problematic, I find the deification of a mortal man to be far more problematic.
There is inherent beauty in the Torah’s message that even our greatest leaders were capable of human faults. Instead of diminishing my respect for them it enhances it. It gives me hope that each person has a purpose and the ability to strive for greatness. I am comforted by a religion that embraces the imperfections and frailty of humanity without the need to deify or sanctify its clergy. In spite of, or perhaps because of their fallibility, we should respect our religious leaders and appreciate their scholarship and wisdom. And even as we look to them for guidance it should never diminish our ability to question and comprehend that any human being, even the wise and honorable, may still be wrong and do wrong. Most impressive are those who can make mistakes and yet rarely do.
On this Mother’s Day we should be grateful for the imperfect mother who manages to overcome her less desirable yet human tendencies. And on this Mother’s Day may those that have endured the trials and tribulations of motherhood be blessed to enjoy the fruits of their labor and live to see their fruits bear many more sweet little fruits.
Rabbi Jack Engel